For a guy who has done a lot of fun and outdoorsy stuff in his day, I was blown away by the activities offered by Un-Cruise Adventures during my cruise in southeastern Alaska.
This is the Big Leagues for active cruise excursions and fit travel options. Much of the fun we had on Wilderness Explorer during my voyage is owed to the fact that Alaska is a wilderness playground unlike any other. I also was very fortunate to have fantastic weather -- unseasonably dry and sunny -- when I cruised in early May.
The Un-Cruise experience places you on a purpose-built boat designed to get in close to remote areas of the Last Frontier so you can observe wildlife and get off the boat to play and explore in some of the most pristine places on earth. I cruised with about three dozen other passengers who also enjoy active pursuits, and the intimacy of the small boat and serene surroundings creates a quick bonding experience for travelers.
Un-Cruise uses expedition leaders on its ships, and they design the activities for the week. This is a flexible program that they refer to as "the plan from which to deviate" depending on weather conditions or other factors.
Welcome to Alaska!
I learned that almost all of my fellow passengers were experiencing Alaska for the first time on this cruise. And what a first day we had. After embarking from Juneau and settling in for the night in our cabins, we woke the next morning to see that we had arrived in Tracy Arm Fjord and the incredible sights of floating ice slipping past the ship as we worked our way deeper into the channel. Some of the chunks had seals and arctic terns perched on them. Looking up at the steep rock walls, we approached a cascading series of waterfalls. Closer, closer and closer the Capt. Clark Smithson brought the boat, until we could almost reach out and touch the falls from the viewing area on the bow of the Wilderness Explorer.
Then, just as we are pulling away from that scene, a mist begins to falls, bringing a full rainbow across the fjord. Cameras have been clicking now for more than an hour straight, and audible gasps and exclamations of wonder are heard "Can this get any better? Incredible!"
And we're just getting started. Later, we changed course to go to Endicott Arm and Dawes Glacier because thick ice blocks our progress toward Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm. On the diverted route to Endicott, we spy a brown bear grazing at the water's edge, more bald eagles soaring overhead and gray whales swimming nearby. Eventually, the glacier is in sight, and we board skiffs to head a little closer. That's when the real show starts. The massive ice wall is still a quarter-mile away but we see clear icy chunks floating by our small boat, getting larger and larger. Also, we keep an eye on a dense blue spot surrounding a cave-like void in the glacier. Sure enough, it starts to give.
The glacier sloughs off massive pieces of ice, and the giant segment shaped like a torpedo plunges into the water before launching back to the surface (a shooter). We have just seen an iceberg being born. Dawes Glacier becomes extremely active for the next 90 minutes -- with thunderous booms sounding that another chunk has landed in the fjord. This calving is an amazing thing to witness, especially up close. It continues even as we return to the Wilderness Explorer, which is now rocking from the wave action cause by the dropping ice chunks. No doubt about it: Nature put on a great show for Day 1 of our cruise in Alaska.
Dai Mar, our lead expedition guide, reveals the activity options for the following day's destination during a "Six O'Clock News" briefing in the ship's lounge, which also is home to the bar. These activities can range from easy to difficult. A shore walk, guided kayak tour or long hike or bushwacking tour. The more extreme or so-called "Hard Charger" activities appeal to me, and I get my fill during the week. Almost more than I bargained for. Again, I had come into this trip with the notion that a "difficult" excursion meant that it probably was hard for someone not accustomed to a regular level of physical activity.
I'll warn you now: If you choose an Un-Cruise Adventures voyage, understand that a hard activity will indeed be extremely challenging.
Our first challenge was an epic hike in the Tongass Forest past Cascade Falls and up to Falls Lake. This, in fact, is the most difficult one I have ever done, and I have lived in Colorado and hiked there extensively. While the roundtrip journey is only about 4.5 miles, it gains 1,400 feet of elevation by mostly scrambling up primitive mud-filled paths covered by muskegs, tree roots and teetering or completely useless rotted stair-ladders that had been cut into fallen logs. This hike is something that those of us who completed it will talk about for a long time.
A skiff took us out to a kelp covered rock in the morning at low tide. Jumping into the waters was a shock at first, but the water that rushed into the wetsuits soon was warmed by our body heat and provided an insulated layer, allowing us to explore the creatures that live in such conditions for about 50 minutes before the icy waters started to win.
The waters were clear to about 15 feet deep, and they remained that way as long as we didn't kick too much. I didn't have to move a lot anyway, as marine life was on display everywhere as soon as I stuck my head under. Plumose anemones dominated the landscape, with their puffy white cotton tops. We also spotted a sculpin fish and dozens of crabs and sea cucumbers, as well as clams and sunflower sea stars (which can have as many as 20 arms). People thought we were a bit nuts to go in those near-freezing waters, but I loved how different this type of snorkeling is from what I typically experience the Caribbean.
Matt, Ken and I rushed to the hot tub once back on the ship. Two intense adventures in two days by the same trio. Dai Mar dubs us the Wilderness Explorer "extreme team."
New days, new destinations, new challenges.
It was hard to catch a breath as the busy days rolled by. I was sleeping very well, passing out soon after my weary body hit the mattress each night in my cabin. The fresh air, activity, tasty beers and delicious meals all aided my satisfying slumber.
Un-Cruise arranges a slate of daily activities for people to get out and explore each new destinations. The excursions or options are designed to meet the needs of all levels of interests and desires for physical activity. Maybe you want to sit back and relax a bit. Try a skiff tour around bays, coves, islands and fjords. Or venture out on an easy shore walk. Feeling more motivated? Paddle along shorelines and open waters during a guided kayak tour. Open kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding in bays (you are required to stay within sight of the boat) are available at times during the trip. These are all cool ways to see wildlife and the stunning geology of the region.
I catch a little break during a Mill Creek morning, when I choose a guided kayak tour. Then, the boat heads to the town of Wrangell for the afternoon, and I go ashore to see the village and take a hike up Mount Dewey. This is on a well-maintained wooden boardwalk, and it's a steep but short hike to a scenic lookout over the town and harbor. I find a new beer to try in the hotel at the pier, an Alaskan Brewing Co. Icy Bay IPA. I am pleased.
Again, it's just three passengers attacking this hike. Plus, five Wilderness Explorer staffers joining us, three guides and two crew members who are getting a little time off the boat to explore Alaska. I love that the company allows its worker -- most who seem to have a passion for fitness, adventure and nature -- to partake in these activities. You won't see that on major cruise ships.
The Bailey Bay hike takes along another tricky path, heading up and down mostly tracing the edge of gorgeous Lake Shelokum, at times leaving a narrow sliver of trail to negotiate. We climb over large boulders and downed tree trunks, tiptoe through tree roots and slop through mud. A rustling of the trees startles and freezes the group for an instant. A bear?
A large goose blasts off from its perch in a leafy tree.
From that moment on, Marika, one of our guides, seamlessly changes our hikers' warning call to "hey goose" from "hey bear" to alert any creatures on the trail ahead that we are approaching. I laugh.
When we reach a meadow and stream which opens up to a snow-capped mountain range with a waterfall flowing down in the distance, we have arrived at the hot springs and a picture-perfect portrait of Alaska. A hot tub constructed with rocks is ready to be filled through hoses laid alongside the flowing streams of steamy hot water that is coming down the mountainside. We eventually get the temperature just right and slide in for a soak after eating our lunches.
We could stay here forever, but eventually start to head back to the ship. We make another stop for pictures on top of a large rock jutting out over a massive waterfall (just as we had on the way up) and also pass through those same three smaller streams and falls, cooling our tired feet and rinsing off the mud one last time before arriving back to shore, where our skiffs await to return us to the ship where we can tell everyone about another you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it Alaska adventure.
The cruise has one day left, and I get a final chance to push myself.
Well, soon after we slide off the back of the vessel, I realize this going to be another grind. Waves are tossing us around, the wind is in our face and we are paddling against the tide that is rushing out of the fjord that morning. Matt and I know we are about to suffer. Especially Matt, who immediately regrets following my advice that we wouldn't need spray skirts. He also got the bad seat in our rig, with me up front and him taking most of the direct hits from the wave action and blasts of spray off my paddle on nearly every stroke. His cockpit start to fill with water, and the first 30 minutes are a struggle to make any forward progress.
We see a skiff already approaching the other side of the channel to rescue the casual paddle group. Their excursion is now a small boat tour of the fjord. We soldier on and make it to a protected cove to regroup. Riding closer to the granite slabs that rise as much as 2,000 feet and define the fjord, we start to make progress.
The boat appears in the distance. (Several prior bends and turns had left us disappointed when we edged around a rock to only find more open water ahead.) Now, we aim our kayak toward a cove on the other side, making it there first to wait for the rest of our group. I eat a couple slices of bacon I grabbed off the breakfast buffet that morning, knowing I would be happy for the fuel.
Ellie tells us to aim our kayak at a distant point on land and let the current take us to the boat. We finish strong -- after 2.5 hours of almost constant paddling covering eight miles. You read that right. We went eight miles to reach the boat, which had to keep going to find a place it could safely anchor all the way at the end of Misty Fjord. Matt and I quickly grab a beer, make our way to the hot tub and commiserate about the incredibly challenging week of activities that we have just conquered.
As I write this, I notice several bug bites on my hands and arms, bruises, cuts and scrapes all over my feet and legs. My clothes are salt and mud stained as I send them through the laundry. These are the only souvenirs I brought back from my trip, and they will be washed away and fade over time. But what won't fade are my memories of this challenging and travel-affirming voyage of discovery. Or my desire to do it all again in Alaska as soon as possible.
Thanks for coming along.